Dr. Brian Cox has been described as a “rock star physicist”. He’s a Royal Society University Research Fellow in the school of physics and astronomy at the University of Manchester. But he mostly spends his time working on the Large Hadron Collider, where he’s one of the scientists behind the Atlas particle detector.
The collider is an amazingly huge machine – 27km in circumference, built by 10,000 physicists and engineers from over 80 countries. It’s designed to carry out an experiment that might be incredibly dangerous – banging two streams of hydrogen nuclei together at 99.99999% of the speed of light. They’ll collide inside enormous detectors, which will do their best to track what might have happened a tiny fraction of a secon after the big bang.
Cox reminds us that there are 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. That amazing explosion of matter came from a universe that was much hotter, denser and simpler as we move back in time, going back to a big bang event where all matter emerged. We know of 16 basic building blocks of reality – 12 particles and four force carriers – quarks and leptons organized in three generations of matter, and the photons, gluons, Z bosons, and W bosons that carry the four fundamental forces. “It’s amazing we’ve discovered any of them given how tiny they are.”
He quotes Ernest Rutherford as saying, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” Rutherford didn’t mean to be rude to other scientists, Cox argues, but then again, he was from New Zealand. Unless you can explain how reality happens, you’re just categorizing what’s out there. He offers “the standard equation”, a huge pile of terms that explains physics as we currently know it. The problem with this equation, he tells us, is that we’ve got a term called “H” – the Higgs particle – which we’ve not yet discovered, but need to have to make the math work
When Cox and others were trying to get the large hadron collider funded, Margaret Thatcher told them, “If you can explain in language a politican can understand, you can have the money.” He offered this explanation – imagine a cocktail party. People are evenly distributed through the room. When someone unpopular comes through, no one blocks their path. But when someone exciting comes in, people flock to them and impede their progress. That cocktail party is the Higgs field – the people are Higgs bosons. That attraction to particles gives mass – “things are heavy because they end up interacting with the Higgs field.”
Cox is betting that the LHC will discover the Higgs Boson. And he’s interested in the possibility that we may see evidence for supersymmetry. He explains that, under the standard model, there’s very close to a single temperature point where the fundamental forces are equally powerful. A more complex model, with a set of SUSY particles, which might represent dark matter and dark energy, promises to unite all forces in a single model. “I would put money on discovering these new particles.”
He offers a rapid history of the universe, from the big bang 13.7 billion years ago, rapid expansion to a point where light could penetrate the universe 300 million years in, suns, galaxies and planets created from hydrogen and helium cooked into bigger elements. He moves on to evolution, the rise of humanity, and putting a man on the moon. “This creation story come from nothing more than all the laws of physics and a few atoms.”